Updated: Mar 23, 2021
In which, fourteen days into using social media, a newfangled blogger masters the obvious
Several years ago I went out on an entirely unremarkable date with a popular area food “influencer”—so unremarkable, in fact, that I didn’t remember the date in the slightest until, on day two of my life on Instagram, she popped up as an account similar to others I pinged. Welcome to the new ran into an ex: your digital masters suggesting you "follow" your past.
Now I recall us having a conversation for the ages—literally. I, a former print journalist and critic, was of the old guard; she, who took photos of every plate and asked me to play Instagram husband for the first time in my life (but not the last!), was the hazy future of content, not that I knew it at the time. Beyond an awareness of the attention economy and a superficial understanding of the social platforms themselves, I was then gloriously ignorant of the whole social media thing—and undoubtedly condescending enough to ask her to humor me by walking through the whole influencer phenomenon. Bless her heart, she did.
Let’s assume my look of terror as she explained it was, shall we say, unsubtle; let’s also assume that terror was reciprocated when I spoke of the ye olden days, when an anonymous--and likely white male--culture writer was the go-between and arbiter for restaurant and customer alike. I remember her speaking in the same adorable-maybe? puns of her posts; I’m almost positive I was dismissive of it at the time (to my current embarrassment). I didn’t get her; she definitely didn’t get me. Two different worlds. I just hope I didn’t end the evening by telling her to read M.F.K. Fisher or Calvin Trillin.
Reader, there was no second date. But the silver lining: look at all this thematic and symbolic importance! Now it reveals itself. I’m so late to the IG #lyfe that I have the luxury of a cultural anthropologist lens about the end of my old line of work and this, the age of the new Jacobins; I also have zero grievances about the paradigm shift that has occurred over the past decade, having left journalism well before its (inevitable) downward spiral. As I noted in a previous piece, social media’s democratization of food criticism has been a net good, a meaningful leap forward from the days of the traditional restaurant critic (itself a leap forward from guidebooks or tiered/segregated dining systems of the first half of the 20th century). The goal in the Before Times was “critical distance,” the need for anonymity and personal detachment in order to pursue some insane notion of objectively doling out stars; the goal now is to capture—primarily through photos and shares—the simple and social pleasure of eating, which is far closer to what and how nearly all Americans dine than the solitary critic attempting to label a place in two or so visits. Progress, for sure.
All of this is easily and obviously said. Less so is the experience of transitioning to this supposedly changed world, which, as an old school newbie, looks both strikingly familiar--exactly how much different is scrolling on Instagram from flipping the pages of In Style or Maxim?--and feels like something else entirely, namely because the faces, but more importantly the value of face, has changed so dramatically. If you like cheap metaphors, the obvious one is changing/transferring schools during your middle or high school years: you may know how school works, sure, but the faces and hierarchies are brand new, as is yours. It’s their rules now.
I’m learning them. Or, at least, trying to.
Where else to begin but the performance of self on the channels? People in the Midwest are nice; midwestern Instagrammers are seemingly nicer. I have only done the slightest bit of fraternizing thus far, but the noticeable trait across what I’ve seen and who I’ve interacted with is utter pleasantness: people who post photos of what they eat seem to really like other people who post photos of what they eat. They like each other’s posts; heck, they like likes. I’ve noticed that area restaurants follow suit.
Indeed, this is the primary discourse of the social channel, something I’m just now learning. Silly me, I launched my IG thinking that the stories and analysis I’m putting together on my website would, via word of mouth, build a base; you already know that’s not how it works. No, here the participatory quid pro quo is key: you engage others for the favor in return. There’s something rather earnest and even sort of neighborly about that; you want to partake. What I would critique in real life I gladly do digitally.
Here’s why: because it’s middle school and I just transferred in. The old rules still apply, after all: eyes are the prize, and the popular kids table has everyone looking at them. I can’t help but wonder if that accounts for why the more popular Chicago food accounts on IG are so damn similar, with seemingly the same mix of food coma indulgences, sponsored shoutouts, and the occasional dip into personal reflection and/or wellness branding--#aspiration as everything, essentially. Every medium eventually evolves a common structure and lingua franca, of course, but this one feels a little craven: is everyone on here just to get paid and/or free swag? It’s disconcerting to think that restaurants--particularly newer ventures--may feel beholden to the approval of those whose interests are primarily themselves, rather than honoring and elevating the talents and hard work of those who labor for our gustatory enjoyment. Service industry people didn’t just go through a year of hell for that.
Still. I remind myself that the medium may be a message I don’t like; as in middle school, one's opinion about the rigidities of the social structure we find ourselves in hardly matters. There was a time--the podcast mini-series Test Kitchen seems to carbon date its end at roughly 2011--when the secret sauce of the content trade was still that magical mix of content, timing, perspective, and pretty photos and whose endgame was alchemy: creating something bigger than the subject--say, a bowl of noodles--itself. Fast forward ten years later, and now the “creator” is both subject and content: it’s their photo, their smile, their cheerleading that constitutes content. Ideas matter less than “presence”—to be somewhere, or to have something, that matters to others. It’s why a photo of gluttonous comfort food will always get more “likes” than the TL:DR I’m shoveling at you currently. The dialogue has been compressed: no longer what does this mean? or why does this matter? but have you had this? or do you want this? Ten years ago that frame of mind launched the small plates trend; now it’s used to launch lifestyle brands. We ‘heart’ it.
This I learned in the last two weeks; this I have accepted. We have a new preferred medium for communicating ideas about food (Instagram) and no particular need for the old one (restaurant reviews in print media)--if that’s the tradeoff for greater participation and inclusivity, so be it! But I’m still lingering over the same question I had when I started: how do you take the (occasional) substance of the latter and transpose into the format of the former? Engagement, as IG has made clear, matters; I’d like to think ideas still do, too. I’ll be testing and exploring what that looks like over the next few weeks.
(P.S.: If you made it this far, bless you. I’ve got some exciting pieces coming soon, including:
As indoor dining returns, I reviews of tasting menus at Ever and other places
A roundup of some of emerging upstarts changing the game for Indian food in Chicago
A series of pieces on the future of Chicago dining, spotlighting several emerging models that may define the post-pandemic era)